In this new publishing interviews series, author Claire Fuller will be asking people with roles within the industry about their jobs. What exactly does a publicist do? How are book covers designed? What makes an agent stop and read a manuscript?
In the first of the series Claire interviews Susannah Godman, the manuscript reader at Lutyens and Rubinstein literary agency in London.
Claire: What exactly is it you do as a reader for a literary agency?
Susannah: I work at home so all our unsolicited submissions come into an email address. I log them onto paper for my records (which I type up for the office grid), have a quick look, call anything promising in, highlight anything else that is promising to read first, reject anything completely unsuitable and then they get read and considered in turn.
C: Roughly how many submissions does Lutyens & Rubinstein [L&R] get in a month, say?
S: I’ve never counted them, but well over three hundred…
C: And then you call in the full manuscript from those you like? How many is that? How much of them do you read before you decide whether it’s a yes or a no? What percentage of them get through?
S: Whole manuscripts I’ve called in? No more than ten a month probably. I try and stop as soon as it is a no, sometimes carry on. Oh, too tiny a percentage to measure I’m afraid.
C: It sounds like a perfect job: to be paid to read. How did you get to do this for a living?
S: I went to work at L&R nearly 20 years ago as office assistant (I was a Waterstone’s Bookseller in Charing Cross Road before that), when I was their only full time employee. With their help I worked my way up to being the Foreign Rights person, and eventually had a few clients of my own too. All that time I also read the submissions pile, which was a proper tower of paper then, so am quite good at knowing what every agent at L&R would like.
C: What’s your average day like?
S: Sitting at a laptop in the dining room. I’m part time self-employed now, so try not to spend all day on it, although I do more than my designated hours because I love it and sitting down is nicer than housework.
C: Most things are nicer than house work. Do you actually call the unsolicited manuscripts you get sent a slush pile?
S: I might do…
C: What kind of person do you think you need to be to be a reader?
S: I’m not sure I could read for anyone else, but am well attuned to what the agents at L&R would love. Usually.
C: What about your own preferences for books you like to read? Do you try to quash them?
S: I don’t really need to. I like all sorts of things.
C: Do you also see the covering letters and synopsis?
S: Yes, If they've sent them in. I try not to look at the synopsis until I’ve read the chapters, but a good letter does make one prick up one’s ears.
C: Interesting. What makes a good letter for you?
S: The sort that makes you quite want to meet its writer: warmth, lack of bumptiousness, unforced humour if appropriate, about the writer as a person rather than a form letter (I don’t mean screes and screes: all this can come across in a couple of sentences). Some letters are brilliant but then the book isn’t, which is always a huge disappointment and one just wants to say, gently, Just Be You. Oh and DO find out who to address your submission to, if you can.
C: What do you love about what you do and what’s not so good?
S: I love reading, and there is such variety coming in, I love it when I find something wonderful and pass it on to the office, and I try to make my rejections bland but kind. A cross rejectee once responded with ‘Lick my boots, bitch’ but that is mercifully rare, and she apologised a YEAR later, claiming to have been hacked…
C: Hah! Sounds unlikely. What about the craziest submission you’ve received?
S: Oh, guided by the spirit of Lady Di, or the actual crazy stuff from people who clearly have mental health issues, which actually is the worst thing about this job because it does make one worry about them.
C: Are there things that put you off a manuscript?
S: Sometimes you can just tell the writer is a wrong’un (sexist, racist, that sort of thing).
C: Do you ever manage to read for pleasure now?
S: Of course, but not as much as when I lived in London and commuted for upwards of two hours a day. I sort of miss that. Unhelpfully, I recently read an old book about donkeys called People With Long Ears by Robin Borwick, and Miss Mole by E.H Young, and A Big Storm Knocked it Over by Laurie Colwin.
C: Thanks so much Susannah. One final question – what advice would you give to unpublished writers who are submitting their work?
S: Write a nice, human letter to the right person if you can. Do multiple submissions rather than one at a time (the beauty of computers, no stamps). Gently nudge if you've waited forever.
To submit a manuscript to Lutyens & Rubinstein, visit their website to find out exactly what they’re looking for and how they’d like to receive it.
Claire Fuller is the author of Our Endless Numbered Days, and forthcoming, Swimming Lessons. Visit her website here where this article first appeared.